Singapore academics do not self-censor, avoid politically sensitive topics: Maliki

SCREENGRAB: YouTube channel
SCREENGRAB: YouTube channel

SINGAPORE — The studies by autonomous universities (AU) on Singapore topics is evidence that academics in the city-state do not shy away from politically sensitive topics, said Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman in Parliament on Monday (10 January).

Maliki alluded to the recent Academic Freedom Survey by AcademiaSG, which said that some 77.5 per cent of Singapore academics had reported at least "moderate" interference by non-academic actors in decision-making at their respective institutions.

"The survey findings suggest that...political constraints have been institutionalised within universities," said the survey's authors Cherian George of Hong Kong Baptist University and Shannon Ang of Nanyang Technological University.

Noting that the authors had pointed out that the response rate was only about 10 per cent – 198 out of 2061 contacted academics at the five AUs – Maliki cautioned against generalising the findings from the survey as representative of how all academics in Singapore feel.

"It would be unfair to our academics to assume that they self-censor or feel inhibited," said Maliki, noting that academics in the AUs have been able to teach, engage in discourse, research and publish on a wide range of topics, including domestic politics, race, religion and gender issues.

He pointed out that the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences has a public listing of more than 8,000 Singapore-related publications, with titles such as "Is the People's Action Party here to stay?"

"The Ministry of Education has also funded projects on topics that may be considered sensitive under competitive grants. Many researchers in the AUs also work with government agencies to study complex issues," said Maliki. Among the examples are the integration of binational families in Singapore, coping strategies among low-income households, and the development of racial attitudes during early childhood. These projects in turn can be used or adapted as teaching material, he added.

Sample size 'not insignificant', says Perera

Maliki was responding to a parliamentary query by Aljunied Member of Parliament (MP) Leon Perera, on whether the government would look into the survey findings and take steps to improve the state of academic freedom.

In a Facebook post after Maliki addressed the House, Perera noted that if a parliamentary question (PQ) is set lower down in the Order Paper and not answered orally, it would by default be scrolled over for a written answer. In such a case, supplementary questions cannot be asked, unless MPs posing the PQs exercise their option of postponing their queries to the next available sitting for an oral answer, according to Perera.

"My PQ on academic freedom was not answered orally since it was filed; and I kept postponing it for oral answer, as I felt the issue ought to be fully debated," said Perera. The Workers' Party MP added that he had been unable to ask supplementary questions for his PQ as question time allocated for the parliamentary session on Monday ended after the government delivered its reply to him.

"While a larger sample size generally yields more accurate results, I think the sample size for this survey, at 198 academics, is not insignificant and should not be dismissed out of hand without further research."

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